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Is Science Compatible with Our Desire for Freedom?

Barcelona, Spain | October 28-30, 2010

This Experts Meeting aimed to investigate whether it is possible to have a science in which there is room for human freedom, and in particular whether today’s quantum physics might offer an appropriate framework for this purpose.

When faced with a conflict between human freedom and a deterministic neuroscience, two rational positions are possible: either human freedom is an illusion, or deterministic neuroscience is not the last word about the brain and will eventually be superseded by a neuroscience admitting processes not completely determined by the past. Accordingly, this Experts Meeting aimed to investigate whether it is possible to have a science in which there is room for human freedom, and in particular whether today’s quantum physics might offer an appropriate framework for this purpose.

 

Post by Social Trends Institute.

Principal Inquiries

When faced with a conflict between human freedom and a deterministic neuroscience, two rational positions are possible: either human freedom is an illusion, or deterministic neuroscience is not the last word about the brain and will eventually be superseded by a neuroscience admitting processes not completely determined by the past. This Experts Meeting aims to investigate whether it is possible to have a science in which there is room for human freedom, and in particular whether today’s quantum physics might offer an appropriate framework for this purpose.

Human freedom conflicts with the deterministic description of modern physics. The philosopher Immanuel Kant vividly experienced this conflict in his own intellectual life. He noted, “It cannot be alleged that, instead of the laws of nature, laws of freedom may be introduced into the causality of the course of nature. For, if freedom were determined according to laws, it would be no longer freedom, but merely nature.” This conclusion was inescapable within the deterministic science of Kant's time.

This conflict still persists today. Yet, science and the principle of human freedom continue to co-exist according to an implicit assumption of non-overlapping realms. So, for instance, the German neuroscientist Wolf Singer states, “We experience ourselves as free mental beings, but the scientific view does not admit any room for a mental agent like free will, which influences neurons and produces actions [...]. In my eyes this conflict cannot be solved for the time being. Both descriptions can be shared together even by researchers of the brain: when I observe the brain I cannot find any evidence of a mental agent like free will or personal responsibility − nevertheless when I get home in the evening I hold my children responsible for their actions if they have done any nonsense.” Indeed, most working scientists seek, so to speak, to have it both ways. When talking to colleagues, they support the view that our brain functions according to deterministic laws, but in private conversations they declare, “I believe also in human freedom, but on the philosophical and moral level.”

Still, the belief that human freedom and science occupy separate realms seems flawed. It flounders on the undeniable fact that by assuming freedom one makes claims about the world that on analysis turn out to be scientific claims. So, for instance, when I claim to be the author of this text and to express original thoughts, I assume that, in typing the text, I govern the firings of my neurons and the movements of my fingers through the exercise of my own free will. What I write is not completely pre-determined at the beginning of the universe. Anyone who claims the right ‘to choose how to live his life’ excludes any purely deterministic description of his brain in terms of genes, chemicals or environmental influences. One cannot claim to have freedom without intruding into scientific territories. 

A frequent objection against the possible relevance of quantum physics for the question of free will is that quantum non-deterministic randomness excludes the possibility of order and control, and therefore of free will. Thus, for example, someone states, “In the end, however, it is clear that neither determinism nor randomness is good for free will. If nature is fundamentally random, then outcomes of our actions are also completely beyond our control; randomness is just as bad as determinism.” Nonetheless, recent experiments suggest that there is no incompatibility between quantum randomness and freedom. What is more, today's quantum physics highlights events which are not completely determined by the past, that is, there are observable effects which cannot be explained by any narrative in space-time and, in this sense, if to be explained, must come from outside space-time. This could offer a framework for a description of the world that does not exclude immaterial agency in principle and therefore remains open to principles and concepts like freedom, personal identity, creativity, responsibility, and religious faith.

Questions to be addressed in the meeting and in the papers presented might include:

1. Does today’s quantum physics offer a framework that might be capable of coping with free will and other non-material principles?

  • Experiments demonstrating effects coming from outside space-time.
  • Experiments demonstrating that local random events experience non-material influences to produce non-local timeless order.
  • Can quantum randomness be controlled in principle by free will?
  • Local random events can be controlled by immaterial influences to produce order. Is this relevant for the evolution of the universe and life?

2. Is there room in today’s biology and neuroscience for free will, personal identity, self-consciousness, and religious experiences?

  • Is there room in a deterministic neuroscience for identity and creativity?
  • How does freedom arise from evolution?
  • Do Libet’s experiments deny free will?
  • Why do we need to sleep? Does the brain create consciousness or is it rather an organ making it possible consciousness at intervals? 
  • How do we explain that consciousness of dreaming is both the same as, and different from, normal consciousness?
  • Do religious experiences relate to observable states of the brain?

3. Does deterministic science rule out the possibility of moral and legal responsibility?

  • Is freedom possible without free will? Can our so called “free actions” be explained exclusively by chains of observable causes in nature?   
  • Do the concepts of moral and legal responsibility make sense if human beings do not have free will?
  • Are there empirical findings in science that undermine freedom?
  • Is penal law based on the assumption that the body is the boundary of the self?

Academic Leader

Antoine Suárez - Center for Quantum Philosophy

Speakers

Antonio Acín - The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO)
True Quantum Randomness

Gilles Brassard - Université de Montréal
Can Free Will Emerge from Determinism in Quantum Theory?

Andrew Briggs - Oxford University
Quantum Randomness, Free Will, and Responsibility

Luís Cabral - IESE Business School
Are the Laws of Economics Compatible with Free Will?

Bob Doyle - Harvard University
The Two-Stage Solution to the Problem of Free Will

Leonardo Fogassi (& Giacomo Rizzolatti) - University of Parma
The Mirror Mechanism as Neurophysiological Basis for Interpersonal Communication

Nicolas Gisin - Université de Genève
Are There Quantum Effects Coming from Outside Space-time? Nonlocality, Free Will and ”No Many-Worlds”

Sara L. González Andino - Université de Genève
On the Quest for Consciousness in Vegetative State Patients Through Electrical Neuroimaging

Martin Heisenberg - University of Würzburg
The Role of Objective Chance in the Brain and Behavior

Robert Kane - University of Texas
Can a Traditional Incompatibilist or Libertarian Free Will Be Made Consistent With Modern Science? Steps Toward a Positive Answer

Flavio Keller - Università Campus Bio-Medico Di Roma
Contemporary Concepts of Motor Control: Is There a Place for Free Will?

Alfred Mele - Florida State University
Free Will and Neuroscience: Revisiting Libet's Studies

Zeeya Merali - Freelance Science Writer
Are Humans the Only Free Agents in the Universe?

Jean Staune - Université Interdisciplinaire de Paris
Towards a Non-materialist Realism

Antoine Suarez - Center for Quantum Philosophy
Does Free Will Require New Physics?

Russell Wilcox - Thomas More Institute (& José Manuel Giménez Amaya - Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
Neuroscience and Freedom

Moderator: Peter Adams - Thomas More Institute

Assistant: Nicholas Teh - Cambridge University

Paper Abstracts

Antonio Acín - The Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO)
True Quantum Randomness

Randomness is an intriguing concept which has fascinated, and keeps fascinating, many different communities, from Philosophy to Physics and Mathematics. On the other hand, randomness has also become a useful resource, as random numbers are used, for instance, in cryptographic applications, gambling or the simulation of physical and biological systems. Up to now, any of the existing solutions for randomness generation had to face the following problems: (i) certification: how can one prove that the obtained symbols are truly random? (ii) privacy: how can one be sure that the generated symbols are also random to any other external observer and (iii) device-independence: how do imperfections in the devices used in the generation process affect the randomness of the generated symbols? We provide a novel formalism for randomness generation which solves all these problems: using the non-local correlations of entangled quantum states, it is possible to generate certifiable, private and device-independent randomness.

 

Gilles Brassard  - Université de Montréal

Can Free Will Emerge from Determinism in Quantum Theory?

Quantum Mechanics is generally considered to be the ultimate theory capable of explaining the emergence of randomness by virtue of the quantum measurement process. Therefore, Quantum Mechanics can be thought of as God's wonderfully imaginative solution to the problem of providing His creatures with Free Will in an otherwise well-ordered Universe. Indeed, how could we dream of free will in the purely deterministic Universe envisioned by Laplace if everything ever to happen is predetermined by (and in principle calculable from) the actual conditions or even those existing at the time of the Big Bang? In this highly personal essay, I share my view that Quantum Mechanics is in fact deterministic and that what we perceive as the so-called “collapse of the wavefunction” is but an illusion. Then I ask the fundamental question: Can a purely deterministic Quantum Theory give rise to nondeterminism, randomness, probabilities, and ultimately can free will emerge from such a theory?

 

Andrew Briggs - Oxford University
Quantum Randomness, Free Will and Responsibility

The discovery of quantum mechanics has changed forever how we think about free will. If it is accepted that there is a one-to-one mapping of our cognitive experience to mechanistic processes in the stuff of the brain, and if that is subject to rigid Laplacian determinism, then it is hard but not impossible to see what room is left for free will. With the advent of quantum mechanics the question no longer is how free will is to be understood in the context of fully deterministic neural activity, but how it is to be understood in the context of neural processes that are ultimately (as far as we know) subject to quantum behavior.

The concept of responsibility is in some ways more sharply defined than free-will. Responsibility and its correlate of accountability are integral to what it means to live as a human. I am responsible for my decisions, words, and actions, and I may be held accountable for them by other individuals, by authorities, and ultimately by God. Progress in understanding responsibility may have educational and legal implications in the realms of discipline and punishment. Free will seems to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for responsibility, and as our understanding of free will grows it will be important to develop our understanding of this relationship.

Even though quantum randomness may seem to offer a new pathway to understanding free will, it is less obvious how this contributes to our understanding of responsibility. I might claim that if all my choices are governed by a rigid determinism then I cannot be held responsible, but why should I be any more responsible if they are attributed to quantum randomness rather than classical determinism?

Luís Cabral - IESE Business School
Are the Laws of Economics Compatible with Free Will?

I argue that determinism at the aggregate level of economic behavior is compatible with uncertainty at the individual level; and that the latter results essentially from individual free will.

Robert Doyle - Harvard University
The Two-Stage Solution to the Problem of Free Will


Random noise in the neurobiology of animals allows for the generation of alternative possibilities for action. In lower animals, this shows up as behavioral freedom.  Animals are not causally pre-determined by prior events going back in a causal chain to the origin of the universe.  In higher animals, randomness can be consciously invoked to generate surprising new behaviors.  In humans, creative new ideas can be critically evaluated and deliberated.  On reflection, options can be rejected and sent back for “second thoughts” before a final responsible decision and action.

When the random noise is limited to the early stage of a mental decision, the decision itself can be described as adequately determined. This is called a two-stage model, first “free”generation of ideas, then an adequately determined “will.” We propose our Cogito model as the best current explanation for human free will. We compare this model to past suggestions and situate it in the taxonomy of current free will positions.

A credible free will model may restore some balance to a disturbing social trend that considers moral responsibility impossible on the basis of philosophical reasoning, psychological studies, and advances in neuroscience.

 

Leonardo Fogassi and Giacomo Rizzolatti - University of Parma
The Mirror Mechanism as Neurophysiological Basis for Interpersonal Communication

The parieto-frontal cortical circuit that is active during action observation is the most studied of circuits endowed with mirror properties. Yet, there is still controversy on its role in social cognition and its contribution to understanding others’ actions and intentions. Recent studies in monkeys and humans have shed light on what the parieto-frontal cortical circuit encodes and what its functional relevance for cognition might be. We conclude that, although there are several mechanisms through which one can understand other individuals’ behaviour, the parieto-frontal mechanism is the only one that allows understanding others’ actions from the inside and gives the observing individual a first-person person grasp of other individuals’ motor goals and intentions.

 



José Manuel Giménez Amaya - Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
Neuroscience and Freedom

The aim of this paper is to briefly illustrate some of the philosophical premises that I believe are influencing the neuroscientific study of freedom, and certain problems that have emerged from within the field of Neurosciences itself in terms of the global understanding of brain function, neural networks and the neurobiological integration of attention. All these phenomena seem to be critically important to the proper neurobiological understanding of freedom. Moreover, there are other aspects of human life that affect our freedom of action and that challenge a purely reductionist concept of free will, a view proposed by some neuroscientists, who are still to convince their detractors. Finally, some brief comments have been introduced about the modern concept of freedom and the need for interdisciplinary work to adequately address the issues that productively link experimental and theoretical disciplines. We exemplify this latter issue by addressing the subtle persistence of dualism in certain approaches to the study of freedom and the recovery of the concept of life in our understanding of human activity.

Nicolas Gisin - Université de Genève
Are There Quantum Effects Coming from Outside Space-time? Nonlocality, Free Will and ”no Many-Worlds”


Observing the violation of Bell’s inequality tells us something about all possible future theories: they must all predict nonlocal correlations. Hence Nature is nonlocal. After an elementary introduction to nonlocality and a brief review of some recent experiments, I argue that Nature’s nonlocality together with the existence of free will is incompatible with the many-worlds view of quantum physics.

 


Sara L. Gonzalez Andino – Université de Genève
On the Quest for Consciousness in Vegetative State Patients Through Electrical Neuroimaging

Consciousness remains an ill-defined concept. This is reflected in clinical practice as there is no objective way to determine that an unresponsive patient is aware of himself and his/her surroundings. However, from the correct answer to this question depends the diagnosis and eventually the continuation of life sustaining aid. 1) Which are the necessary conditions to confirm that a conscious mind is enclosed is a completely paralyzed body?, 2) How can we extract these responses from neural activity alone?, 3) How could these signals be exploited to establish a minimal dialogue between the patient and a physician using a machinery that interprets the neural responses?, 4) Is awareness localized to certain neural structures or instead a global process that depends of the activation of a critical mass of neurons? We will here discuss our proposal to create a Turing machine able to detect objective markers of consciousness.

 

Martin Heisenberg - University of Würzburg
The Role of Objective Chance in the Brain and Behavior

Recent claims that freedom is an illusion or self-deceit have attracted much attention. Some scientists and philosophers maintain that a behaviour causally determined by natural law can not be considered free, and a behaviour that is released by chance is not free either.  Lawfulness and chance, they say, are an alternative that leaves no room for anything else. Therefore, if neither lawfulness nor chance allow for freedom, how could it possibly be real. This seemingly 'waterproof' argument is flawed. Chance and lawfulness are not a mutually exclusive alternative. To the contrary, they occur together and depend upon each other. Their specific interplay constitutes our world in which the future is open and creation has not ceased. It is in this world, where behavioural freedom has evolved.

 

Robert Kane - University of Texas at Austin
Can a Traditional Incompatibilist or Libertarian Free Will Be Made Consistent With Modern Science? Steps Toward a Positive Answer

I started thinking about free will [in the late 1960s] when my philosophical mentor at the time, Wilfrid Sellars, a well-known analytic philosopher of the period, challenged me to reconcile a tradi­tional incompatibilist or libertarian free will with modern science. Sellars was a scientifically oriented thinker and he was a compa­tibilist about free will, like the vast majority of philosophers and scientists of that era. He did not believe a traditional (libertarian) free will—one that was incompatible with determinism —could be accounted for without appealing to obscure or mysterious forms of agency of the kinds P. F. Strawson had dubbed "pan­icky metaphysics"—that is, without appealing to un­caused causes, im­ma­terial minds, noumenal selves, non-event agent causes, prime mo­vers unmoved, and the like.

I accepted his challenge at the time [of reconciling free will with science without any such problematic appeals] and remember thinking with the brashness and naivete of youth: "Give me three or four weeks and I'll wrap this up and be back with an an­swer (or at least by the end of the semester!)." Well, it is now more than forty years later and the effort is still ongoing. The reason the task was so much more difficult than I naively assumed as a young student was that, as I slowly came to realize, it required rethinking many facets of the tra­ditional problem of free will from the ground up, breaking old molds of thought and substi­tuting new ones. I report on some results of this life-long rethinking of an age-old problem in this paper.

Flavio Keller  - Università Campus Bio-Medico Di Roma
Contemporary Concepts of Motor Control: Is There a Place for Free Will?

A careful consideration of contemporary concepts of motor control reveals many aspects that, in my opinion, are compatible with the possibility that humans can perform free actions, at least under certain conditions. The main argument that will be developed in this paper is that, although we are not conscious of all determinants and factors shaping our actions, this does not imply that our freedom is an illusion. Even if many external and internal stimuli can trigger reflexive responses, under normal conditions we are able to inhibit such automatic responses. Human behavior consists of two aspects: 1) suppressing reflex responses; 2) initiating purposeful behaviour according to a specific plan. Human freedom, in my opinion, manifests itself in the ability of keeping a specific course in life. This requires inhibiting many reflexive urges calling for immediate action to earn a short-term reward, and initiating actions toward long-term rewards that, by the very reason that they lie in the future, are aleatory. My argument is that our motor systems are constructed in order to enable this state of things, by incorporating powerful inhibitory mechanisms into brain circuits associated with voluntary control of movement.

Alfred R. Mele - Florida State University
Free Will and Neuroscience:  Revisiting Libet's Studies

Benjamin Libet contends both that “the brain ‘decides’ to initiate or, at least, prepare to initiate [certain actions] before there is any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place” (Libet 1985, p. 536) and that“If the ‘act now’ process is initiated unconsciously, then conscious free will is not doing it” (Libet 2001, p. 62; see 2004, p. 136). He also claims that once we become conscious of our decisions, we can exercise free will in vetoing them (1985, 1999, 2004, pp. 137-49). Some people follow Libet part of the way: they accept his claims about when and how decisions to act are made but reject the window of opportunity for free will as illusory (Wegner 2002, p. 55, Hallett 2007).

Elsewhere, I have argued that the claims I just reported are not justified by the data Libet and others offer in support of them (Mele 2009). Here I review some of the problems one encounters in attempting to move from Libet’s data to his conclusions.

 

Zeeya Merali - Freelance Science Writer
Are Humans the Only Free Agents in the Universe?

In 2006, John Conway and Simon Kochen published their provocatively titled Free Will Theorem. The theorem, it is claimed, proves that if humans are truly free agents, then so too are elementary particles. As such, it strikes a blow against the suite of deterministic models proposed as alternatives to the standard form of quantum mechanics. Here, I will briefly outline Conway and Kochen’s proof and discuss the implications of the Free Will Theorem for physics and for the source of human free will.

Jean Staune - Université Interdisciplinaire de Paris
Towards a Non-materialist Realism

The objective of this paper is to show that by bringing together two of the most fascinating fields in Quantum Physics and Neurosciences, respectively Non-Locality on one side, and the experiments of Benjamin Libet on Free Will a dualist model for the Mind-Body problem is not only possible but also most appropriate in order to understand the problem of consciousness and the existence of free-will.

The first part of this paper is dedicated to EPR-type experiments which show that no matter what the interpretations are, we are obliged to call into question the classical notions of time and space and obliged to accept that ultimate reality cannot be localised in or be dependent of time and space.

In the second part, I will be arguing that the experiments of Benjamin Libet, in order to be understood, must be studied in a dualist framework, even though Libet was not himself a dualist. A Copernican revolution is therefore possible not only in our understanding of the world but also in our vision of the nature of consciousness.

Antoine Suarez - Center for Quantum Philosophy
Does Free Will Require New Physics?

Human free will is capable of controlling the body’s behavior from outside spacetime, but incapable of changing the past. I argue that the brain may allow quantum nonlocality without entanglement and, thereby provide a convenient interface for free will and consciousness. Additionally I stress that if one accepts human free will, then quantum experiments demonstrate that there is conscious free will on the part of nature outside human brains as well. This is a fascinating challenge, and answering it may require more new philosophy than new physics.

 

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